Blockchain as Key to Vienna’s Digital Future — Interview with Ulrike Huemer, CIO of Vienna, Austria


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Austria is Europe’s leader in terms of applying modern day technology to better the all-around welfare of its citizens. Making cities “smart” and digital is a key part of transforming public goods and services in order to reach that goal. Vienna is especially keen on innovation, trying to find new solutions by way of digitization. Easy access and clear-cut benefits are key aspects to finding broad acceptance among Vienna citizens, making them willingly partake and help to better the transformation process.  

To further the breakthrough of digital technologies and make them the backbone of society, Vienna called into existence the so-called “Smart City Vienna” initiative in 2014, which aims to better the lives of its general population. The Smart City project isn’t meant to merely foster technology, though. Rather, the latter is supposed to be a tool, helping to achieve social change and making the city more livable overall. Technology as a servant to humanity, not the other way around.

The Smart City Vienna strategy takes into consideration multiple fields that need to be transformed, such as energy, mobility, real estate and others. Every single aspect of the strategy has well-defined target objectives in order to provide transparency and a sense of urgency. In total, 38 target objectives are set out until 2050, while different milestones are to be met by 2025, 2030 and 2050.

Blockchain is a key factor in realizing these goals. As such, it has been applied to different use cases that pertain to the strategy in one way or another. One of them is the notarization of Open Government Data (OGD) — to facilitate the use of food stamps by local government employees. Electric supplier Wien Energie, which is run by the city administration, has also been exploring the use of blockchain technology for quite a while now, trying to make distribution along its grids more efficient. Last but not least, Vienna is setting up a blockchain-based token that is part of an incentive driven initiative, rewarding citizens for “good behavior.”

In which ways can blockchain contribute to Smart City Vienna further? Will the capital city get its very own cryptocurrency eventually? Why is digitization so broadly accepted among Vienna’s population? Cointelegraph Germany sat down with Ulrike Huemer, the chief information officer of Vienna, to answer these questions and to further elaborate on what’s to come.

Smart City Vienna — the road to digitization

Cointelegraph: What is your vision of Vienna as a “smart” city?

Ulrike Huemer: Vienna does score favorably well in many different rankings already, some of it due to our comprehensive approach to the Smart City initiative, which constantly drives new projects and gets monitored on a regular basis. Our comprehensive approach isn’t just a means to an end, though. It is much rather our guiding principle to cover all our bases when making our city “smart.” It’s not just about technological innovation for the sake of it — instead, we are looking to use it as a vehicle leading us toward social change and environmental sustainability. It’s all about providing the best quality of life to all our citizens, thus we are incorporating every office of city administration, linking them up with companies from the private sector as well, to set up a broad network as a basis for the transformation process.

“It’s all about providing the best quality of life to all our citizens.”

We don’t just emphasize these points toward the general public, we also make sure to reiterate this concept internally to really make it stick. Driving research and development-oriented policies is key, but so is getting everybody on board with what we’re trying to do. Consulting-firm Roland Berger ranked our digital agenda number one in its recent “Smart City Index” publication, especially praising our continued efforts to better the health care system through technological innovation. Open Government Data and our progress in areas such as mobility, environmental sustainability and education put us in the top-spot according to the study. We’re looking to continue to build on this, truly making Vienna a “smart city” indeed.

CT: How well is Austria positioned in terms of the smart city concept? Is Austria in a good starting position for this?

UH: Austria is well positioned to master future challenges due to the various public infrastructure frameworks. The smart city concept can play a key role here. The most important aspect is the implementation and cooperation with relevant actors. The very first thing to ensure when dealing with the smart city topic is to create adoption through a broad process. Civil society, the economy and science must be given the opportunity to state their interests to the city administration so that we get the big picture of a future that is worth striving for by all parties. By integrating all interest groups, we can ensure the holistic nature of this strategy. Finally, to establish such an agenda, political support and an evaluation process that makes successes and potentials visible are needed.

CT: Implementing a smart city is enormously expensive. Who is paying for these digitization measures that are necessary?

UH: There is no direct answer to this question. It’s a fact that, as of now, the city of Vienna does not have an additional budget for the current smart approaches. Therefore, the individual departments and actors have to use their existing budgets and try to innovate their sovereign work themselves. Furthermore, there is some extra funding provided by the European Union or by national co-financing. In recent years, this has brought an additional investment volume of around 15 to 20 million euros to Vienna.

Blockchain solutions for the city of the future

CT: What is blockchain technology‘s role within the Smart City of Vienna?

UH: The city of Vienna has been exploring blockchain technology proactively. We want to use this technology to drive the city’s digitalization and the associated guiding themes of transparency, openness, trust and citizen participation.

We chose to use the technology for our own processes, to proactively shape the development and to support the promotion of it. From the start, we knew the only way to test the blockchain technology‘s potential was by "learning by doing.” This is why we launched pilot projects that were implemented successfully. The pilots‘ primary goal was to build the necessary expertise within the city administration and in our ICT [information and communications technology] municipal department named Magistratsabteilung  01 – Wien Digital.

“From the start, we knew the only way to test the blockchain technology‘s potential was by "learning by doing.”

Via the DigitalCity.Wien-Blockchain.Initiative, we are connecting key areas such as identity, education and research with the blockchain community in Vienna, thereby strengthening both the stakeholders and Vienna as a blockchain location.

CT: The city of Vienna provides open data and e-government for its citizens. How does blockchain improve the administration?

UH: In December 2017, a unique solution was published in Europe where Open Government Data was secured using blockchain. The City of Vienna’s first blockchain pilot dubbed "Open Data Notarization" was focused on the acquisition of knowledge on blockchain technology. The city of Vienna‘s OGD checksums are stored publicly on blockchains and are available to the public. Thus, anyone can view and check the authenticity and history of the data themselves, eliminating the need for middlemen.

The solution is being used now and is set to encompass all data records of Austria‘s administration located on Austria’s data portal in the following weeks.

CT: Wien Energie is researching the use of blockchain technology, also collaborating with the city of Vienna on Smart City concepts. Are there any blockchain solutions regarding sustainable energy you could tell us about?

UH: Blockchain technology allows us to scale innovative energy solutions. Let’s use microgrids as an example: These small and decentralized networks are completely autonomous, connecting supplier and consumer in the shortest way possible, reducing the loss of power to a minimum. On top of that, they eliminate the need to expand the main grid, which can be quite expensive.

We’re also exploring so-called energy-sharing via blockchain. In order to do so, we are setting up a blockchain infrastructure in the “Viertel Zwei” research district, connecting it to the existing power supply.

CT: The city of Vienna is using blockchain as part of the so-called “City Token Initiative,” which got started in collaboration with the research institute of the crypto economy at the Business University Wien (WU). Could you please specify what the initiative is all about?

UH: Sure! At its core is the idea to get people engaged, making them care about their surroundings and setting incentives for them to contribute to the betterment of the city. We created the so-called “Culture Token” to foster this idea, acting as a reward for any type of good behavior as defined by the initiative. In return, citizens can use the token to get access to arts and culture around the city. As an example, we are looking to reduce carbon emissions by rewarding citizens for leaving their car behind, having them take a walk instead and earning tokens in the process.  

“The core idea of our ‘Culture Token’ is, to get people engaged [...] setting incentives for them to contribute to the betterment of the city.”

CT: How are these “Culture Tokens” set up?

UH: The “Culture Token” exists in digital form only, being made available on mobile phones and tablet computers. It is set up as a reward system, but stands in stark contrast to the Social Credit System run by the Chinese government. The city of Vienna is keen to exclusively use technology to the benefit of its citizens. It is supposed to simply reward people for volunteer work, for doing good in many ways. We are trying to broaden the scope of the token, too — not only tying it to arts and culture, but establishing it as a true means of payment for many different services instead. That way, it wouldn’t merely be a “Culture Token,” but much rather a “Vienna Token,” which really is the long-term goal.

CT: Are there any further plans to use blockchain in the context of the Smart City initiative?

UH: We’re looking to make use of our findings from the aforementioned “Open Data Notarization” project. In collaboration with our partners, we want to establish a notarization service that can be applied in many different fields. For example, helping to notarize city government documents or to further “machine learning.” Another important topic is self-sovereign identity, which is concerned with being in full control of one’s own data — blockchain technology can be of assistance here, as well. There is an abundance of use cases, though, like the Internet of things (IoT) and related applications. We will most likely integrate blockchain into different devices and supply chains, too, wherever we see fit.

CT: Is the city of Vienna looking to issue its very own cryptocurrency?

UH: No. As a city, we are merely acting as an observer. At some point in time, blockchain technology might be used as a means of payment, though, since it can help to improve financial transactions considerably.

Creating dialogue

CT: What is the role of big technology companies in the city of Vienna? The Smart City initiative could be of great commercial use for them, especially in combination with blockchain, artificial intelligence, IoT and big data, couldn’t it?

UH: All our partnerships are supposed to provide mutual benefits to either side — technology companies are no exception. As such, the Smart City initiative does indeed establish a framework to strengthen existing partnerships through technological advancements. The overarching goal is to better the quality of life in Vienna, though, which is our main premise.

The “DigitalCity.Vienna” initiative is aiming to establish Vienna as a European leader for digitization, and we are looking to market the city accordingly. The DigitalCity.Vienna initiative has an open format, accessible to all parties interested. We are doing our best to connect all parties involved, helping them to find common ground along the way. In regularly scheduled events, we’re sitting down major companies, ascending startups, the city government, public authorities and academic institutions in order to create a running dialogue in the digital ecosystem.

“The ‘DigitalCity.Vienna’ initiative is aiming to establish Vienna as a European leader for digitization, and we are looking to market the city accordingly.”

CT: What kind of government assistance does Vienna need in order to stay ahead in the global race for blockchain adoption?

UH: We want to strengthen existing partnerships in this area, while attracting further blockchain projects to Vienna in order to benefit from their expertise in the long term. Intricate knowledge is crucial when it comes to blockchain, that is why we are adamant about building it up and retaining it. A prime example is the Austrian Blockchain Center, which is doing research on many different blockchain use cases. The research center recently settled down in Vienna, and we intend on keeping it here, providing some of its funding as well. It will take these kinds of projects, plus government assistance and close collaboration with the private sector, to make Vienna a major international blockchain city.

‘Blockchain Is Really Democratizing a Lot of Things,’ Interview With Marta Piekarska, Director of Hyperledger’s Ecosystem

‘Blockchain Is Really Democratizing a Lot of Things,’ Interview With Marta Piekarska, Director of Hyperledger’s EcosystemINTERVIEW

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Hyperledger, an open source project, was created in 2016 by the Linux Foundation in order to support the development of blockchain-based distributed ledgers. All the members of Hyperledger — including such major actors as Intel, Accenture, JPMorgan Chase, Hitachi, Fujitsu, Alibaba Cloud, Citigroup, Deutsche Telekom and many others — find their interest in blockchain technology and discuss it with Marta Piekarska, who is in charge of the project’s ecosystem.  

We met Marta at the Anon Blockchain Summit in Vienna and talked about computer science, conservative vs. progressive sectors of economy, Hyperledger’s community and her favorite books.

Kristina Lucrezia Cornèr: Can you please tell us how the whole Hyperledger adventure started?

Marta Piekarska: The Linux Foundation was created 20 years ago to bring enterprises and the open-source community together to work on frameworks, tools and technologies to support certain fields. What started off with Core Linux, today has over 70 projects in every major industry.

Hyperledger started three years ago to bring enterprises and the open-source community to work together on blockchain tools and frameworks. Every piece of code, every piece of work that ever happens under the Linux Foundation has to be on the Apache license. Hyperledger started three years ago with 30 founding companies, some of them the biggest in the industry: IBM, Accenture, JPMorgan Chase, Hitachi, Fujitsu and Intel, of course. And then, there are much smaller startups, like IntellectEU, that was a founding member of Hyperledger, and some big but not very well-known companies, like Digital Assets, like DTCC — which now has its name, but back in the time before blockchain, it was one of the most important institutions in the U.S., but nobody knew about that.

And shortly after the Linux Foundation started Hyperledger, Brian Behlendorf was hired as the executive director of Hyperledger, and three or four months after he came to me and said: “Would you like to join us at the Linux Foundation focusing on Hyperledger?”

The way that Linux Foundation is structured is that some projects have core employees, and we are focused 100% on Hyperledger. And then, our PR, marketing team and events team are shared across all the Linux Foundation projects and focused more or less intensely, depending on how many events or how much marketing we need.

Hyperledger’s ecosystem

KLC: What about your position – Director of Ecosystems? What is your role?

MP: It was a nice creation, although nobody knows what it means, which might be a problem. So, I define my role as member success, because Hyperledger is a nonprofit, and we are member-based. So, our life, our existence is sustained by membership fees. And these members are enterprises. We don’t have individual memberships, but enterprises that want to benefit from the PR, marketing support, networking, promotion, and all that. Because the technologies are 100% open source, you don’t have to ask permission to join special interest groups, you don’t have to ask for the permission to download the code. But there is a lot that can be done in the blockchain space to support your development of products, solutions, etc. That’s basically what we at Hyperledger do, and my focus is on working with our members to define what it means to be a successful Hyperledger member, why did they join this gentlemen’s club, if you will.

KLC: That is some very gender-focused language.

MP: It is, but it’s very British. Until today, you have some gentlemen’s clubs only, like a Soho house. That’s more gender-specific.

I work very closely with our now-over-280 members to understand why they apply blockchain technology, and how they apply it. My computer science background is very useful because I understand their technology at its core — like, I understand why they are going blockchain. And then, I can abstract that and talk about more high-level goals and objectives.

The role of gender stereotypes

KLC: How is it to be a woman in the blockchain “gentleman’s club”?

MP: My background is in humanities. I never actually planned to study computer science, I never thought of technology before I applied randomly to a technical university. I lost a bet, basically. The bet was that I had to apply to a technical university — and if I got in, I had to at least start studying. So, I did that, I randomly chose electrical and computer engineering because it sounded fancy. I started, and after two months I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do in my life. I want to code — I loved coding.

It was a very rough ride for me, firstly because anything that you start learning compared to the other people that have been doing that for the last million years of their life, is harder. In high school, I was a top student, always the best in class. I went to university and I hardly made it through the first semester, I hardly passed all of my exams. Then, it got slowly better and better, obviously.

But also, the way I have been treated by my professors was pretty awful. My favorite story was two or three weeks in, when one of my professors said to me: “Oh, I guess computers don’t like you, but don’t worry, computers in general don’t like women.” Great. I’ve also had comments like “Maybe ballet school will be better for you than the computer science school.”

Initially, it was 80 of us that started and five women. After the first semester, there were twenty of us and two ladies — me and another one.

The thing I don’t like about this industry in general is that it is always about your gender, when you are a woman — I guess, a person of color as well, or different sexualities. It’s not always about if you’re smart or you’re not smart, it’s just always about your gender.

I’ve found the hacker community extremely welcoming, and I’ve never had problems with being open about being bisexual or being a woman, and all of my hacker friends all have quirks in one way or another. The more traditional, strict industry and computer science is very much about, “you’ve got this scholarship because you’re a woman,” or “you didn’t get this scholarship because you’re a woman.”

On the other hand, I think that blockchain is really democratizing a lot of things; it is democratizing the startup world. Now startups can compete with the biggest. [...] And the same with that women now can be entrepreneurs, and don’t care about what guys are thinking. People of color can be entrepreneurs and don’t care about what others are thinking. I think this is pretty incredible and a very powerful area, and I’ve never really felt in any way discriminated.

Obviously, we still struggle to get good technical females talking on stage. It seems like if there are good technical females, they tend to stick in the coding room and code. But that will happen.

There was this “60 minutes” — it’s a show in the U.S., and they did a study on computer science and kids. And it turns out that after secondary school, there is a massive drop. So, until secondary school girls are very eager, and I see that one of my stepdaughters, she’s 13, she was always really good at sciences, and it took so much courage to say “I’m gonna go my A-levels in triple science.” For a year, we had to work on it and say, “it’s okay, it’s fine, you can be good in science,” but she just felt embarrassed.

KLC: The same could be found in the first season of “Genius,” a series by National Geographic, about Einstein. His first wife, a brilliant scientist, had to struggle through all her life to be a woman in the academic sphere. And it just became harder when she married Einstein and bore his child.

MP: Historically, we’ve been in a society where women are supposed to be supporting the man who comes home and brings food. And there are different ways of doing that. So, in Japanese culture, the man is the one earning money and working hard, and woman will take all the money and give him just pocket money. In European culture, it’s much more that man drives it all and woman is there to cook. We say it’s stereotypes, but they are not really stereotypes.

New technologies and academia

Marta Piekarska is also running academic programs, being responsible within Hyperledger to connect innovative business with academia.

MP: This is something that we are just building out. How can we connect academics with the enterprises, because we have all the enterprises in the world, but academics still don’t know they can reach out to us and say, “I want to do a research on X, do you have a partner I can be doing it with?” So, we are trying to bridge that gap.

KLC: What is your solution, your first steps to connect with academia?

MP: Well, we have an internship program that just started. So, we are trying to do real academic internships. We had 10 places, now we grew into 15, because it is just so popular. The Linux Foundation or Hyperledger pays for these internships, but we ask our community to submit topics and be members. It’s those different enterprises — someone in that enterprise has that little thing that they want to do. We are also trying to build mentoring programs for the community to learn how to work with open source, to open a new project. That’s just starting.

Some other ideas are: We have some proposed research, we have universities on the Hyperledger.org mailing list, where we hope to engage academics more closely. Basically, you know, it’s giving a shout-out to the people who are doing interesting research — like the Cambridge Centre for Alternate Financing is doing really good work, and they are an associate member of Hyperledger. For universities, governments and nonprofits, we have an associate membership, which is free of charge — and if universities are engaged with us, we are happy to accept them as associate members. We have the Blockchain at Berkeley lab, we have Penn University, we have MIT, Stanford, Peking University.

Challenges while working in the blockchain space

KLC: It seems really exciting. You combine in your everyday job that communication, humanities skills and, at the same time, technical knowledge. What are the main challenges within the objectives you are trying to reach?

MP: Well, scalability is an issue, because you want to keep that individual approach and engagement — but with the more people you get, there are only so many hours in the day.

In terms of the general blockchain space, I think the biggest challenge today is a lack of objective experts. All the experts today — or many of the experts — have learned a certain thing. Like, they’ve learned only about Hyperledger, or only about ether, or only about Corda, and they will spend a lot of energy explaining to you that you should not be using anything but X. And when you ask them why, the honest answer is “because I don’t know W and Z.”

So, that’s why I’m so hopeful with the academic programs and teaching programs. As we go through the batch of students that have learned about all of those elements, because they’ve been university-educated rather than online-educated, (although I have nothing against online courses, but in order to be online-educated you have to take five courses, right? If you go to university, you still have to take five courses, but you have to do them for the credit). I think that with that, we will get better at having people who will say: “Okay, this makes sense for X, and this makes sense for Y, and let’s use the technologies appropriately.” So, the lack of objective experts is a thing.

Collaboration, in general. We are changing the way the people are thinking about interactions with their customers, with their competitors as well — and need to start feeling comfortable sharing information with their competitors.

I think, it’s changing. It’s funny because I want to say it’s a slow change, but then again, we’ve only been the blockchain enterprise for, like, four years.

Discussing industries: Who are the most conservative actors in the space?

MP: I think, out of all the sectors, the financial industry is the most conservative one, although it was the one that has been in the most rush to adopt blockchain. Fintech was the one that jumped on blockchain immediately — like, the first one. But actually moving from “we are doing a bunch of PoC [proof-of-concept]” to “let’s embrace this into production” — that is extremely hard. It’s also, I think, the difference between how easy it is to do a PoC in a certain domain and how it scales up to production.

I’ll give you an example. It’s hard to build a successful deployment of a supply chain, because if you want to do a PoC, you can do a supply chain between you sourcing your Panna Cotta from your home to me, selling it at my restaurant, and that’s two nodes, and maybe you source your cream from somewhere and I sell it, right? So it’s easy to make a PoC, and we’ll say it runs well and we’ll track the quality of Panna Cotta over the supply chain.

However, if you think “How do I scale that actually to the mass production of Panna Cotta,” you have to sign up all of the sugar, cream, cows, and whatever else through the transportation of the Panna Cotta — packaging as well, all of the health certification for England, where I’ll be selling it. So, the number of parties that are highly competitive and might not want to join that market, that supply chain, is very high.

And if you think of Brexit, now you also have to add customs to it, and border control, and whatever else. A hell. So, building out a successful supply chain production is much harder than a PoC, which you could do that over a hackathon.

If you think of an identity system, it’s the opposite. You have a very hard way of navigating how to identify the elements that should be put in a blockchain-based identity, what should go on a blockchain, what should go off blockchain, what is sensitive information, what is private information — you have all those meta-questions that you have to answer, even when you are building a PoC. But then, if you do a good PoC, scaling it up to production is easier — you are just adding more participants.

This is where we could say there are more traditional versus less traditional industries, or more conservative versus less conservative. I think that supply chain is one that is really embracing the production, but it took them awhile to get there because they were figuring out their steps.

Health care is extremely embracing blockchain. You have payments on a blockchain throughout health care, you have medical health record management, you have prescriptions on a blockchain. All of that is really going forward.

The financial industry, it’s really hard to build a good, scalable reconciliation because there are a lot of competitors that are not necessarily incentivized to move to a new system.

KLC: What about the energy sector?

MP: The energy sector is catching up. So, we had a PoC very early on. It was done in China, it is from Blockchain Energy Labs, and it is tracking CO2 emission through a blockchain. There are companies like BitLumens that looks at deploying systems that combine energy use, giving to the grid sustainable energy consumption with micro-crediting — so, proving that you can buy access to a solar panel that is on your house, which basically works as a sustainable energy source. You can buy, on a regular basis, access to that for hours or for days. And based on that, you build out a credit score that is trustworthy, and you can get microloans. So, there are some interesting projects around energy.

Also, of course, one of the big things in energy — the next big thing, I think — will be a merge of IoT [Internet of Things] and the management of those independent devices, because blockchain there is very important. You get to track the security of those machines, big power grids and so on.

Books on blockchain

KLC: Okay, my last question: Can you recommend your favorite book? Something that inspired you about your work.

MP: That’s a good question. I’ll tell you three of my favorite books. The first is a Richard Faulkner book. That one inspired me because it is all about adventure, and so I’ve always lived by that.

The other book that I really love is “The World According to Garp” by John Irving. It’s just beautifully surreal, very smart about life, very much about doing what you want, but going with what feels right rather than what should be right about the societal norms.

And third book is “East of Eden,” which again is about empowerment and the fact that you can do things. The most important words are “you can” rather than “you have to.” So, these are the three books that inspire me in life in general.

In terms of blockchain work, there are not many books out there yet. I am currently reading a book that is called “How Open Source Ate the World.” It is a very good book about open source and working with open source, which I admire.

In terms of courses or learning blockchain, I quite value our Hyperledger Blockchain course, which we have free of charge online on edX. There are two types of it, there is a high-level one, and there is one that gets you into coding. I think this is a really good gateway to blockchain technologies in general.